Friday, June 22, 2007

An end in sight?

Finding Closure

The last three months have been like a roller-coaster for us all at St Joseph’s Secondary School. The end of any school year is always frenetic because there are practical exams in Music and Art and oral exams in all the Languages. This means a lot of pressure on both pupils and teachers with extern examiners coming into the school. Then there are two graduation ceremonies to be organised and attended – Transition year and Leaving Certificate respectively. Furthermore, there are the History and Geography special topics to be written up. Needless to say, somewhere in the background ordinary school classes continue. Now, take the scenario of a serious incident hitting any school – for all second level schools are the same – like a tidal wave and one would expect chaos.

Well, we did not have chaos. What we did have was a time of absolute emotional upheaval. Somehow or other life did go on as it always does. I’m reminded here of the famous quip by Robert Frost in answer to the question as to what he had learnt about life after all his long years: “It goes on!” How true indeed! We, in St Joseph’s were hit by two tidal waves only 2 months apart: first the untimely death by natural causes of young Stephen Dowdall (15) and then the shocking murder of one of our sixth years Seán Nolan (18) on the night of his graduation. We were all literally left reeling like punch-drunk boxers staggering from the ring – twice.

Nothing prepares one for death really. Even when we expect the death of a loved one, it is still hard. At 49 years of age I have experienced a fair number of deaths, including that of my father (1993), grandparents and several uncles and aunts, as well as three friends from college, one by suicide (1978) and two in a car crash (1979). I have seen all of the foregoing laid out and have bidden them all a fond goodbye. All these occasions are indelibly printed on my mind, or more correctly finely etched in my heart. We do get over them and we do cope, and things do indeed get easier as we grow older. However, we never forget, nor do we understand. We simply learn to accept. That’s life – it’s hard. Let’s pick ourselves up, help each other, cry on each other’s shoulders if we can and go forward together.

However, the death of a young lad who just dropped down dead at 15 is traumatic for his family and friends. Such is not what we would call usual. Thankfully it was natural causes, and somehow, when the post-mortem results come out, we can somehow begin to get our minds around it. How his poor mother might do so I simply do not know. Stephen was her only child and her husband had just died some few years previously. The school counsellor, Mairéad Martin, and I did several sessions on listening, encounter sessions if you like, where we just sat and listened to our Third Years expressing how they felt at Stephen’s untimely death. These were privileged moments for both of us; moments which lie lightly in a sacred space in both our hearts; moments of unique and personal trust never to be forgotten; sacred moments to be treasured; moving moments when we knew we had to be strong for the boys.

I will never forget the evening of Stephen’s removal from the funeral home to Lawrence O’Toole’s Church. I remember standing for more than an hour at various intervals with the boys as they said their last goodbyes to their fellow student. There were five or six other teachers who did likewise. The boys needed us to be there to give them the strength to be with their dead friend. One boy placed a football at Stephen’s feet. Another lad brought in a photograph of Stephen and himself, pictured on the day of their First Holy Communion. He placed this picture carefully at Stephen’s feet. He had already visited Stephen that morning on his own in the funeral home. The young boy simply had to say goodbye alone to his best friend. The most moving sight of all was that of the coffin being carried shoulder high the length of Seville Place all the way down to the Church door. During the service there were many tears, but nothing to be compared with those of the boys outside the Church after the service as they broke down in one another’s arms. Again such grief cannot be contained – it must be expressed. The boys held each other and they felt alright with this as both Mairéad and I had already informed them that it was important to allow themselves to cry.

One boy who could not bring himself to go to the funeral went out alone to Stephen’s grave to say his own goodbyes. That was his way of doing things, his way of grieving, the only way he knew that he could cope. Grieving is different for everyone and the timing and pacing of it is also different from person to person. Four of his friends went down to Stephen’s mother a week later and they sat with Mairéad and me just talking about what it was like to talk to Stephen’s mam about her son and their best friend. They were still confused, still shocked, still bowled over or to continue the boxing metaphor, still reeling.

Roll on six or so weeks to the fateful night of the Sixth Year Graduation, 25/05/2007, a night never to be forgotten. Who would have thought that such an auspicious night for all the families and friends gathered would herald the last few hours of life for one of the graduates? Who would have thought that a young lad of eighteen, healthy and full of life, a sportsman as well, would end up dead a matter of five or six hours later? Who would have thought that young Seán Nolan would no longer be with us? A graduation ceremony is meant to mark the beginning of a new phase in life, the end of one’s school years and the very beginning of one’s adulthood. And so the graduation ceremony of 2007 at St Joseph’s is tinged forever with sadness. How unfortunate that all those lovely young lads had to be catapulted into adulthood so suddenly! How tragic that they were forced to grow up or come of age so forcefully! Such are the bitter-sweet lessons of life! Such is life and such is mortality. There can be no life without death and no death without life. Yet, the poor boys could have waited many more years of adulthood before such a shocking lesson. But that was not meant to be! “God’s ways are not our ways,” “He writes straight with crooked lines!” What we cannot understand we can only hope to accept.

Needless to say, this second death, this tragic murder, brought back the sadness and grief of the Third Years at the loss of their friend Stephen. How could we lose two lovely young lads in the space of eight weeks? Then the grief at Seán’s murder was different to that of the grief at Stephen’s, though both equally deep. The second death was traumatic for the boy’s family and friends. We needed professional help from outside because murder is a greater trauma than natural death. Obviously, I’m not trying to compare the depth of grief of either family or trying to lessen one as regards the other. I’m simply pointing out that murder is an horrific trauma which is more disturbing and confusing than natural causes. Therefore, while the grief experienced by both families may be equally deep, they are different in quality. I hope that makes some little sense. Perhaps I’m not expressing myself too well, so I can only hope a patient reader will understand my drift.

Once again, Mairéad Martin and I did as much as we ourselves could. All the teachers came into the school the Saturday after Seán’s tragic death and sat with our bewildered, bedraggled, confused, angry, sad, tired and emotional graduates. The whole scene was surreal. Most of us were just simply numb. We still could not believe what had happened. It was like a nightmare to which there was no end in sight. Young Sinéad Coffey was brilliant and she only 22 years of age, her first graduation class with the tragic death of one of its students. I won’t mention anyone else by name. Suffice it to say the parents of the boys were also brilliant. There is simply too much to be said so I shall have to bring this meandering account to some conclusion. I notice that the title I gave to this piece is “finding closure” and indeed we have found just a little. How? Well, two psychologists from NEPS came into help us, along with a professional crisis or trauma-counsellor. As well as that, we had a lovely Mass celebrated by Fr Finbarr Neylon on the Saturday after Seán’s death, using the same readings and the candle Seán had carried the night before. This liturgy proved to be very healing indeed, and Seán’s family were all there. As our principal Brian O’Dwyer said, “The Nolans came into the school distraught and broken, but they left stronger and more consoled,” quite simply because all Seán’s friends and classmates were around them. In fact, the family stayed until nearly 6 p.m. looking at pictures with all Seán’s friends. Then, there was the following Sunday night which Sinéad, Aidan and I spent with most of the boys in Parnell’s GAA Club. That was a turning point in the lads’ expression of grief. Indeed, one can truly say that each and every one of us ministered to each other in turn.

The night of visiting the body, the day of the funeral, visiting the grave, the various gatherings in different houses, the sharing of tea and sandwiches, lunches and dinners, not to mention alcoholic beverages etc., all served to bring some closure to a very painful and confusing last term for us at St Joseph’s. Then we had the professional help of psychologists and counsellors along with two group support sessions for the Sixth Years. We have all learned to get our priorities right. What’s the use in worrying about all the small things? What’s that the man said about “Don’t sweat the Small Stuff?” Leave the sweating for the bigger stuff – the most important things in life!

The boys have put up Bebo pages in honour of both Stephen and Seán and the messages of love and grief have been pouring in on both. This is nothing short of journalling on line! Well done, lads and lasses! Your friends live on in both your messages and in your thoughts! To leave a message of love on either page is really to say: “Stephen and Seán, you will never die!” You will both live on in our memory.

Above I have placed a picture I took of the wreath his friends placed on Seán's grave. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam uasal óg dilis. Leaba i measc na naomh go raibh aige go brách!

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Another Novel On Growing Up

Growing up is never easy

I have mentioned in the more recent posts on this blog that I wished to review some books on childhood and growing up. In this post I should like to briefly review another small but beautifully written book on this subject. The novel in question is Portofino by the American author and film-maker Frank Schaeffer.

Above all this is a hilariously funny book, but like all good books it has a serious message. It is a story which recounts a boy’s struggle to grow in a repressive family atmosphere. This boy’s name is Calvin Becker, 11 years old, and he is the son of an embarrassingly over-zealous American missionary couple who are strong evangelicals. The Becker family holidays every year on the Italian Riviera in the small resort of Portofino. Calvin’s father, even on holidays, seems to be always in a bad mood, and his mother is forever attempting to convert the “pagans” she meets on the beach. Needless to say, both these facts drive the young boy crazy. His sister Janet is far too much similar to her mother, and she keeps a ski sweater and a miniature bible in her suitcase because you never know when the Russians might invade and pack you off to Siberia. Here, then you have the setting of the novel, right during the era of The Cold War. In fact, the year is 1962 and the country is Italy.

As a matter of fact, Frank Schaeffer wrote three semi-biographical novels about growing up in a fundamentalist missionary family and they are respectively Portofino (1992), Saving Grandma (1999)and Zermatt (2003). I have only read the first of these, and certainly intend buying the other two to finish the tale of his growing through his adolescent years. Here is what Frank says about these novels in a recent interview on his own website : “In 1947 my mother and father moved to Europe. They were American Protestant, Reformed, Calvinist missionaries. I was thus part of an experiment in radical Christian living "by faith alone" in the commune of L'abri in Switzerland where I grew up. I've been exploring this childhood in my semi-biographical novels of the Calvin Becker Trilogy---Portofino, Zermatt and Saving Grandma. I guess that they are what the Times of London called them, "Cross-cultural comedies" and "coming of age stories." But perhaps what they are really about is what children face in households where their families are dedicated to some cause, be it fundamentalist Christianity, or left wing messianic politics. Even as children we find ways to challenge the orthodoxy that surrounds us...”

That’s what I love about Portofino, that is, the ways young Calvin Becker finds ways to challenge the crushing orthodoxy and stiffling atmosphere in which he is forced to live. Young Calvin is fed the party line that he is part of “the anointed” or “select few,” yet he is beginning to learn that he is just an ordinary everyday young boy full of all the frailties and weaknesses of every other human being. In this novel, Calvin lies about his father’s profession and tells people in Portofino that his father is actually a teacher. These are the marvellously astute words young Calvin uses of himself: "Some kids I met told lies to be special. I told lies to be normal."

Calvin lives for the family's annual summer vacation in Italy where he can escape to the sea, the eccentric locals, and the taunting blond Jennifer, the daughter of a wealthy English family who stays at the same pensione.

I always read the first 2 or 3 pages of any novel I buy just to sample the style. If I’m captivated by the style, then I’ll buy it. I think the opening of this small novel is marvelously clear: “The first glimpse of the Mediterranean was always turquoise. ‘A turquoise bracelet studded with diamonds,’ my sister Janet said. I had two sisters: Janet, my angry fifteen-year-old sister, and Rachel, who was meek and thirteen.” (p. 11) The narrative continues in such a clear, crisp and at times clipped style. It flows with energy and power, and sweeps the reader along like a boat in a rather fast stream.

Here, again we witness Schaeffer’s humour when Calvin’s mother lectures the eleven-year-old boy on personal hygiene: “‘You should wash under the little protective flap of skin God created to keep your Little Thing clean.’ When my ‘Little Thing’ was ‘naughty,’ it would stand up. It was part of ‘God’s beautiful gift that you must save to unwrap at Christmas – Marriage,’ as Mom would say.” (p.14) The laughs continue like this almost from page to page. The style is fluent, precise and apt and always clear. Calvin witnesses a lot including a slight love affair between his mother and one of his father’s clerical students – a love affair which thankfully never really took off. All of this is grist to young Calvin’s mill – the realization of the sheer frailty of the so-called “elect” or select few, or of the so-called “saved.” Then, there is the funny episode of his Dad pulling the porcelain toilet tank down on his head in one of his moods when he flushed the loo. When Schaeffer writes about one of his dad’s moods he always capitalizes the “m” to make his point.

Perhaps the most moving and poignant moment in the book is when young Calvin is leathered or strapped with a belt by his father – some nine times. Finally, there are some nasty scenes between his mother and father and their eventually moving reconciliation. The novel finishes on a positive note with the young boy finding a hairbrush containing two long blonde hairs from his sweet-heart’s hair – Jennifer whom he had adored from afar and whom he had helped when she had cut her foot. We see young Calvin fleeing out the door and heading off with his contraband neatly hidden in a bath towel.

In short, this novel is a good read – 7 out of 10. The above photograph is one of me as a young student - 19 or 20 - when I was reading a book on Shakespeare's plays for an essay at college.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

A Modern Spiritual Classic 2

A Small Classic of Modern Spirituality 2

In last post I dealt with lecture one by Thomas Keating. In this post I propose to deal with his second lecture. This lecture is entitled simply: “Contemplation and The Divine Healing.” Here he addresses the question as to who we really are or who we are called to be in our lives. In both lectures he manages a brilliantly rich assimilation of the findings of modern psychology with the spiritual quest.

I loved the following analogy that Thomas Keating uses for the spiritual life and I’ll let you hear his own simple yet profound words: “The divine therapy, like the A.A., is based on the realization that you know where you are (the topic of the first lecture) and that your life is unmanageable. We may be able to lead a relatively normal life, but there is no experience of the true happiness that comes from letting go of the obstacles to the awareness of the divine presence.” (31)

Keating asserts, and he has been a practitioner of meditation for more than 50 years, that a spiritual practice or discipline is necessary to disarm and dismantle our selfish programmes for happiness which we have bought into over the years of our growth and consequent conditioning. Keating also alludes to all our defence mechanisms which we human beings use to protect our “real self” from being exposed to possible ridicule. Freud’s daughter Anna was the first psychiatrist to enumerate the defence mechanisms and she mentioned among others the following: compensation, denial, displacement, intellectualization, rationalization and projection. A discussion of any of these is beyond the scope of this short post. However, it is important to point out that defence mechanisms can be both helpful and unhelpful. Keating, is referring to the unhealthy use of defence mechanisms to avoid the naked truth about ourselves. Let us listen to Keating again: “The deep rest of Centering Prayer loosens up the defence mechanisms that have kept an emotional trauma in early childhood from confronting us. One of the most devastating emotional traumas of early childhood is phys n sexual abuse. The damage done to the delicate emotional lives of children is so painful that it is repressed into the unconscious, where it may remain unknown by the victim unless deep psychotherapy or contemplative prayer loosens up the defence mechanisms.” (p. 34)

Keating obviously would advocate appropriate psychotherapeutic help for such victims of child sexual abuse. Nor does Keating, I hasten to add dismiss defence mechanisms as all bad, for indeed clearly they are not so. Rather they serve to defend and protect the self from harm and shame or perceived harm and shame. As we grow older and as we get to know our real self, as we either attend to seeking professional help and/or engaging in exercises of meditation or contemplation, we open ourselves up to healing, real deep healing and to the very experience of the unconditional love of another human being and, Keating would argue, most especially the unconditional love of God for us in our brokenness.

Above, once again, I have pasted a picture I took of an evergreen tree in Newbridge House last summer.

A Modern Spiritual Classic

A Small Classic of Modern Spirituality

I have recorded in these pages before that friends have recommended books for me to read. I have long had an interest in spirituality as has good friend of mine, Tom Gleeson, roughly my own age and a fellow teacher. I suppose we are more than friends – we are, in fact, kindred spirits. We have attended many courses on personal (both spiritual and psychological) development together. A small contemporary spiritual classic that I have just finished – called The Human Condition: Contemplation and Transformation – is one he lent me a few weeks back, but which I have just got around to finishing. It is a wonderfully simple, disarmingly simple, yet profound book.

This book is 45 short pages in length and comprises two lectures delivered by Thomas Keating, the famous Trappist monk and scholar, at Harvard University in 1997 in a lecture series endowed by Harold M. Wit. Fr. Thomas Keating, O.C.S.O. was born in 1923 in New York City, is a graduate of Yale and Fordham universities and is a founder of the Centering Prayer movement and of Contemplative Outreach Limited and has a web page at Centering

This is a beautiful book, small and deeply enriching. It is at once disarmingly simple, yet profound. The two lectures are entitled “The Human Condition” and “Contemplation and the Divine Therapy.”

In the first lecture he asks us the deeply probing question as to where we are actually here and now in our own spiritual life, in our own quest for meaning and happiness. In the second he addresses the question as to who we really are or are called to be in our lives. In both he manages a brilliantly rich assimilation of the findings of modern psychology with the spiritual quest. Needless to say, for Thomas Keating that spiritual quest finds both its source and apogee in the Christian vision of life.

Freud may be credited with first bringing the wonderful world of the unconscious to universal notice. To my mind it was the great psychiatrist, Carl Gustave Jung, who established the unconscious in a more holistic and less pathological way than his former mentor and friend and who saw the unconscious and indeed the collective unconscious as sources of creativity, wonder, awe and splendour as well as the more negative pathological aspects of our personality.

Here is what Keating has to say about the unconscious and the spiritual quest on page 12 of this wonderful little modern classic: “The discovery of the unconscious is only 100 yrs old, and it casts an enormous light on all spiritual disciplines.” Then on page 20 he continues: “What matters most is fidelity to the daily practice of a contemplation form of prayer such as Centering Prayer. This gradually exposes us to the unconscious at a rate that we can handle and places us under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Divine love then prepares us to receive the maximum that God can possibly communicate of his inner light. Besides the dark side of the unconscious, there are also all kinds of other awesome energies – e.g. natural talents, the fruits of the Spirit, the seven gifts of the Spirit, and the divine indwelling itself – that we haven’t experienced yet and that are waiting to be discovered.”

Keating sees the contemplative journey as “a purification of the unconscious” which is “an exercise of letting go of the false self, a humbling process, because it is the only self we know.” (p. 20) He sees the false self as looking for fame, power, wealth and prestige. By meditating or contemplating on a regular basis we learn to come to terms with all the false “selves” and there are so many of these. These may also be called your masks or roles or even in Eliot’s words the way you “prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet,” in The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock. One by one over many months and years we face each of these masks and pull them away layer by layer until we meet a truer and more real and authentic self. This is not an easy task at all. In fact this gradual stripping away is painful.

On page 25 this is what Keating says: “Contemplative prayer starts modestly, but as soon as it begins to reach a certain intensity, it opens us to the unconscious. Painful memories that we have forgotten and repressed begin to come to consciousness. Primitive emotions that we felt as children and that we have been compensating for come to consciousness.” However, now we are at the stage where we have a therapy as it were to face all these memories. In fact, this therapy is none other than the “divine therapy” of contemplation where we open ourselves to the very grace of God which will come flooding into our hearts to help up on our spiritual journey. This is the theme of the second lecture.

To be continued.

Above I have placed a photograph I took of the sun in the trees at Newbridge House last summer. Both the sun and the tree have long been potent religious symbols.